The Trials and Tribulations of Richard Leonard
Updated: Oct 22
In the wake of Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard nearly facing a vote of no confidence this past weekend, the crumbling party has more concerns about its future and identity.
Following four MSPs calling for Mr. Leonard’s resignation, a vote of no confidence in the Labour leader was to be held on Saturday the 19th. Leonard, a member of Labour’s Corbynite left wing, was elected in 2017 to replace Kezia Dugdale. But much like his associate Corbyn, he has not found a great deal of electoral success. After coming fifth in the European elections in May of last year many began to doubt Mr. Leonard’s ability to lead the party, especially as it has been in continuous freefall since its first major loss in 2007; with the SNP’s rise as Scotland’s premier party in the subsequent years and IndyRef coming into the national conversation. Especially following Corbyn’s defeat, and the ousting of Corbynites from the party following the rise of Keir Starmer, moderate Scottish Labour MSPs are looking to drastically reshape the party towards the centre.
The most prominent of the MSPs calling for Mr. Leonard’s resignation was James Kelly, who not only called for the leader to step down, but himself left the shadow cabinet, saying, “I have no confidence in your ability to shape the party’s message, strategy and organisation. I know that this is a view shared by other parliamentarians, party members and indeed many members of the public.”
Mr. Kelly’s concerns, which were notably shared by MSPs Jenny Marra and Daniel Johnson, focused on Mr. Leonard’s lack of popularity and his failures to win any noteworthy battles in Holyrood, especially when going up against Nicola Sturgeon. Labour has repeatedly failed to create significant change within Holyrood, being unable to alter the budgets or accomplish their political goals. Most recently, Mr. Leonard questioned the First Minister on extending furloughs in what was meant to be a tough attack on her leadership; but this horribly backfired when Ms. Sturgeon swiftly reminded the party leader that she had extended the scheme weeks ago. It was another humiliating moment for Mr. Leonard, who continued to flounder in the following weeks. Additionally, a nationwide poll indicated that more than half of Scots were unaware that Mr. Leonard was the leader of the party, and those who did generally had an unfavourable impression of him.
All this is to say that the proposed vote of no confidence was not without reason, despite Mr. Leonard dismissing the calls as being simply “factional”, further angering his detractors who complain of him being unable to listen to criticism. However, those attempting to oust him do not have a particularly bold vision to fix the deeply broken Scottish Labour party either. Ms. Marra of Dundee stated the primary reason for her support of Mr. Leonard’s ousting was that 3 years was enough time to show that he had not made a notable impression on the people of Scotland and was not their man to move the party forward come the May elections, in which Labour are already projected to suffer another dismal performance.
However, if that is the case, why would pivoting to a more centre-left platform make such a difference to the party, considering the failure of the LibDems and the success of the SNP, a party which is in theory essentially a more centre-left independence-supporting Labour? Even if this is under the guise of adjusting to Starmer’s new model Labour, it does not have much merit considering Mr. Starmer has stated he has a good working relationship with Mr. Leonard (even if he did not address the party leader by name during the speech he gave during his recent visit to Scotland).
One of Mr. Leonard’s only continuously vocal supporters is MSP Neil Findlay of Lothian, a man I’ve met and greatly admire for the same reasons I do Jeremy Corbyn, the man who led their faction of Labour. Mr. Findlay pointed out the lack of vision that Mr. Leonard’s detractors have, deeming them treacherous and noting they were the same people who felt Jim Murphy would save the party. He also agreed with Mr. Leonard that it was suspicious that this vote of no confidence was called right as Mr. Leonard was able to convince the Scottish Government to establish a National Care Service. While admittedly this is only notable because so few of Scottish Labour’s demands have met with success in the past decade, it does call into question the interests of his detractors.
However, despite having truly believed in Jeremy Corbyn more than I’ve believed in any politician in my lifetime, even I must acknowledge that standing in his wing is not the winning move for the party at the moment. Even if it was, Richard Leonard is no Jeremy Corbyn, lacking his authenticity and charisma. While Corbyn became perceived as an extremely polarising figure, at least people had an opinion on him; while Mr. Leonard is a largely unknown leader, still in Mr. Corbyn’s shadow even as his brand of Labourism dies out. In a speech at a Connected event on the 20th, meant to restore faith in the controversial party leader, Starmer’s own deputy leader, Angela Rayner, introduced him as “Richard Lennon.” If that doesn’t restore confidence to the party, what will?
Scottish Labour’s problems are so much more than how left-wing its factions are. It is diseased with career politicians and internal management woes which have generated a sense of complacency; a long-term hangover from Labour’s erstwhile dominance over Scotland. A by-gone era, which feels like a lifetime ago.
It is not to say that all of Scottish Labour’s problems came from the corruption and performative politics that came from the Blairites and Gordon Brown’s reign as leader, but it certainly has only imploded more and more every year. These leaders had to do very little in a time when the SNP was weak and the Conservatives were disorganised, yet with Labour polling at 14% in Scotland and having had only 1 MP in Westminster for essentially the last decade, the party continues to not listen to its people.
Scottish Labour is all but dead and there is no one leader who can fix it; which is perhaps why they let Mr. Leonard stay on. They would rather sit back and see themselves implode than do what is required for them to even stand a chance at holding power, which would have to be a drastic rebirth: a complete separation from Westminster, from which they get most of their funds.
Scottish Labour was long ago a party of working-class Scots angry at the control Westminster had over them and who wanted their voice as a nation heard. It was certainly more nationalist than it is today as it was made up of people who wanted true social equality and exemplified a strong party that was tired of being kicked about by not only England, but anyone who thought they could use the nation’s labour and resources without any reward.
This type of Scottish Labour voter no longer exists. It exists as a party of middle-aged, middle-class folks who do not care for a truly independent Scotland with an independent voice and they do not care whether their policies are actually being enacted as they aren’t affected by them either way. Overall it is a dwindling and unenthusiastic voter base. The SNP, despite its flaws, has completely usurped those old Labour voters in a shockingly short timespan and has remained an effective leadership party. And with the Covid-19 pandemic allowing Ms. Sturgeon to stand in contrast to Boris Johnson as a comparatively competent and effective national leader, it does not seem that will change anytime soon. Despite their “big tent” practices leading to uninspiring ideology and IndyRef2 still seeming like a distant, desperate dream, the SNP represent what Scotland is so much better than Labour, who have had a simply laughable fall from grace.
Richard Leonard will not lead the party to a rousing victory come May, but neither will James Kelly, nor will any of his detractors; none of whom seem willing to step up to the task anyway. Unfortunately it seems Scottish Labour will have to implode, completely reshape itself and hope for the SNP to make a blunder or develop into a futile, centrist party. We can only hope that the reshaped Labour party develops once again into a truly Scottish, truly socialist people’s party that would at least support a vote on independence. In other words, whether Mr. Leonard gets the boot before May or not, Scottish Labour is not the party of the future that it foolheartedly maintains it can be.
Contains Scottish Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence